A 70cm Radio for Around a Tenner?
Tim Kirby G4VXE starts his usual roundup with a look at a remarkably cheap handheld for the 70cm band.
Tim Kirby G4VXE starts his usual roundup with a look at a remarkably cheap handheld for the 70cm band.
When I was in Cheltenham back in the summer, I spoke to my old friend Graham Nuttall G8XRS. In the course of the conversation, Graham told me that he had recently purchased one of the cheap Baofeng BF-888S rigs, Fig. 1, to use on the 70cm (432MHz) band. These simple radios, available for around a tenner or even less, allow you to program up to 16 channels, selectable by a knob on the top of the radio. Graham had set his up to monitor the local 70cm repeaters.
I quietly filed the idea but didn’t do anything about it. However, when I saw some discussion on Twitter about how cheaply these radios can be obtained, I thought, ‘why don’t I get one and have a play’. For a tenner or so, you can’t really go wrong.
The rig arrived last week. It’s actually surprisingly solid and doesn’t feel like a toy. Neither, though, is it a robustly constructed rig that will stand being dropped. The first job was to get the frequencies programmed up because it comes pre-programmed with non-amateur frequencies, which it would be illegal to use in the UK. Although as many readers will know that I enjoy setting up radios from computers, this proved to be quite a frustrating process!
First of all, I had to get the USB cable (it’s a standard Baofeng cable/connector), which you may already have, set up on my computer. Because it uses a fake Prolific chip, you have to go through the well documented process to get this installed. Once I’d done that, I thought it would be plain sailing to get the rig talking to the excellent CHIRP software or the Baofeng programming software. Not so!
Despite the programming software being set to look on the correct COM port, the programs both reported that the rig was not responding. I fiddled and kept trying and at some point (after several minutes of intense effort), it started working. Unfortunately, it wasn’t clear to me why! When I researched the problem a bit more, I discovered that the BF-888S Plus model, which mine is, had a slightly different memory layout, which caused CHIRP in particular to fail.
Fortunately, once it started working, it continued to do so for that programming session at least. I hastily set to, adding all 16 channels with repeaters that I might conceivably want to use as well as various simplex channels. I uploaded the configuration to the rig, unplugged the cable and selected a channel.
Oh! Despite having selected ‘English’ in the settings for the voice announcement, the channel number was read out very distinctly but in Chinese. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a setting in the software that would take effect to provide the announcements in English. I had just about resolved to try to learn the numbers 1 to 16 in Chinese, when I discovered that if you switch the rig on with the channel knob set to 14 while holding the PTT and monitor button, this will force the language to English. It worked!
Despite the programming process being somewhat fraught (and I think this was because I have the Plus model rather than the straightforward BF-888S), I am delighted by the little rig. In a good location on the outskirts of the village, I was able to get into the GB3UK repeater on the Cotswolds, some 40 miles away while from home, sat in the lounge, I can use it to listen to various repeaters. And, contrary to what some would have you believe, there is activity.
If you haven’t tried 70cm before, or even if you have, these rigs make FM on the band very accessible. I’m told that the BF-888S models are easier to program than the Plus models so, hopefully, if you get one of those, you will not have such an ‘interesting’ experience as I did. It might make a great club project to get some local activity on a repeater or a ‘club channel’. The simple nature of the rigs rather reminds me of the old Pye Pocketfones, which many people used to get on 70cm FM when I was first licensed. All good fun for a tenner.
Choosing the Right Frequency for your Digital Hotspot
Recently, the amateur satellite community highlighted an issue when the FO-29 satellite was suffering interference from a ground-based digital voice (DMR) transmission. Although most digital hotspots (MMDVM, openSPOT, DV4Mini and the like) are very low powered, sometimes the radios that are used with them are running higher power, 5W or so, which could be received by a satellite if it happened to be passing over your location at the time and if your hotspot was located in the wrong part of the band.
There are a couple of issues here, then. First, to make sure that your digital hotspot is in the part of the band recommended in the RSGB/IARU bandplan (434MHz or 438.8MHz) and, second, to ensure that when you are communicating with your hotspot, you use a minimum of power to do so, selecting the lowest power possible on your handheld radio.
The 6m Band
Peter Taylor G8BCG (Liskeard) says that August was another great month on the 6m (50MHz) band made better, perhaps, by increased activity on FT8. On August 4th, Peter finished his Worked All States on the band, working KB7Q/P (WY) via moonbounce (EME), which was followed by another solid 12-hour opening to North America and the Caribbean as well as some South Americans. Peter closed down at 2330UTC with the band still open. On August 13th, Peter hosted a visit to his shack from the Callington Amateur Radio Society – there was lots of chat as well as EME QSOs with Lance W7GJ on both 50 and 144MHz. August 21st saw the first opening to TR8CA, which Peter says is very early in the year for propagation to Gabon. On August 23rd there was an exceptional morning opening to the Middle East with YI1SAL extremely loud on FT8, as well as A9, 9K, 4X and OD. There was a good level of CW/SSB activity with 9K2MU making lots of people happy on 50.102MHz. Things seemed to go pretty quiet on the band around the end of August. However, on September 7th, Peter had some easy EME QSOs with ZL3NW and VK3WTN. Peter says, “If you think this is not for you, then consider this: Wayne VK3WTN uses a 7-element YU7EF antenna with no elevation and we worked with his moon at around 25°. Why not give EME a try?”. Peter worked KG6DX and JR2NQU on EME next day, September 8th.
After enjoying FT8 on 2m, Martin Mills M0MLZ (Plymouth) decided to try the mode on 6m and was pleased to work OK2GM over a distance of 1600km during August after the main Es propagation had ended.
Jef VanRaepenbusch ON8NT (Aalter) found plenty to work on 6m during August, finding over 60 stations on FT8 alone, with the highlights being EA8MT (IL27), Z32ZM (KN02), EG81CM (IL18), EA9ACF (IM75), E77EA (JN84), EA8JK (IL18) and EA8YV (IL18). There were QSOs on CW and SSB also, with the highlights being EA6VQ (JM19), E72U (JN94), HG60KCI (KN06), 4O3A (JN92), LZ1146SPS and IS0GQX (JM49).
Kevin Hewitt ZB2GI (Gibraltar) made 30 or more contacts on FT8 during the month, using an FT-450 and a dipole, including G3YQC (IO82), G3XGS (JO01), M1SLH (IO91), G0KSC (JO01), G3YJQ (IO70), G0CKP (JO01) and M0JBM (IO81). Operating as ZB2LGT from Europa Point lighthouse using an FT-817 and a homebrew two-element Yagi, Kev made over 50 FT8 contacts, including 3A2MW (JN33) as well as a handful of stations on SSB.
John Wood G3YQC (Hereford) says that 6m Es has been slowing down after a good Es season, although August produced plenty of contacts, albeit not at the great distances reached previously. TF3ML was worked on August 14th, followed on the 15th by a central European opening, with CT1ANO worked on the 16th and another central European opening on the 18th. The 20th was a good day with highlights being 9K2YM and C31MF with ZB2GI and TR8CA worked on the 21st. Another station from Iceland, TF3JB, rounded out the month on the 24th with contacts being a bit sparse since then.
Mark Marment CT1FJC (Algarve) has made a few contacts over the month, the highlights being UT4XU on August 6th and TR8CA on August 14th.
The 4m Band
Jef ON8NT worked G4FUF (JO01) on 4m FT8 using 10W from his IC-7300 to a halo antenna on the balcony.
Mark CT1FJC caught an Es opening on August 7th when he worked GD0TEP (IO74) on FT8.
Simon Evans G6AHX (Twyning, Gloucestershire) is getting back on the band after a few months, with both vertical and horizontal antennas. He plans to be active on both SSB and FM.
The 2m Band
On September 1st, Peter G8BCG turned his focus from 6m to working CT8/W6PQL on 2m (144MHz) EME. He notes that during the September 2m contest, DR9A was a solid S9 signal at a distance of 750km throughout the contest. Peter added 24 vertical elements to his 2m array to help with EME when the polarisation changes. However, he tested it with some amazing simplex QSOs on FM over a distance of 350km. He also says he can’t believe how loud the satellite downlinks are when tracked with the array.
Martin M0MLZ continues his FT8 activity from Devon, using his vertical antenna, and does very well. August 19th saw conditions above normal and Martin worked two stations in Wales and one in Lancashire as well as G4VXE in Oxfordshire. Martin hopes that his August 144MHz UK Activity Contest entry will have seen him go up a few places from usual because it was his best result so far with 74 contacts made, which is excellent from the south-west.
Pete Walker G4RRM (Crewe) has been using a vertical with between 25 and 50W on FT8 on the band and has made some nice contacts, including G8IXN (IO70), GW1JFV (IO71) and GM4FVM (IO85). Pete says he hasn’t had so much fun on the 2m band in years and is tempted to put his Yagi back up.
Kev ZB2GI was excited to make his first 2m meteor scatter contacts during the Perseids shower in August. He operated from the top of the Rock using an FT-897 running 50W to a Cushcraft 5-element dual-band 2m/70cm Yagi on an 8m pneumatic mast along with a 0-20dB preamplifier, Fig. 2. Stations worked on FSK441 were F6BEG (IL18), F6APE (IM97) and G4SWX (JO02), Fig. 3. On SSB, Kev worked EA8EY (IL18) and EB7BKY (IM77). He says that his presence on the ON4KST VHF chat server caused the screen to go orange and there was an almost constant ‘meep meep’ of incoming messages with people wanting to work Gibraltar on 2m.
Simon G6AHX says he’s not had too much time for radio recently but operated the September UK Activity contest running 10W into his 8-element Yagi. He made 26 contacts with the best DX being DF0MU at 644km.
Here at G4VXE I have noticed a lot more 2m FT8 activity since the 6m Es season has quietened down. I made well over 100 contacts on the mode on 2m over the month, with the highlights being MM0CEZ (IO75) on August 7th, M1AVV (IO84 and also using a vertical) on August 20th, F1DRR (JN18), F6APE (IN97), F4CHB (JO00), F5BZU (JO11) and F6DBI (IN88) on August 21st, ON3SS (JO10) and OV3T (JO46) on August 28th, ON4AIQ (JO10) on September 1st. All contacts were made using 50W to a V2000 vertical.
The 70cm Band
Jef ON8NT enjoyed the UK Activity Contest on 70cm, especially having missed the 2m leg owing to thunderstorms, with the highlights being G4CLA (IO92), G4ODA (IO92) and G3MEH (IO91).
Derek Brown G8ECI (Louth) has decided to build a K2RIW amplifier for the band as well as a W2GN design for 144MHz, because he has plenty of valve bases and valves and hopes that will make him louder on both bands!
Jef ON8NT monitored four different voice contacts from the ISS to schools on August 16th, 23rd, 25th and 27th. The contact on August 16th was made using low power and Jef says that signals were between 51 and 54 with him.
Kev ZB2LGT used an FT-817 and a manually-tracked 2m/70cm log periodic and worked 7X3WPL (JM13), IK8YZZ (JN70) and F4DXV (JN04) through AO-91 and EA7AGZ (IM76), 2M0SQL (IO87) and EA8CUZ (IL18) via AO-92.
Patrick Stoddard WD9EWK (Phoenix) sends a really fascinating report of his summer’s activity which sadly, I’ve had to abridge slightly.
“I was back in southern California in August for another one-day event - this time, one involving model rocketry and space. Two radio clubs in the Los Angeles area had a booth at the event on August 18th, called Rocket Fever, at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, California, southeast of Los Angeles. The center is on the site of the former Rockwell (and North American Aviation) plant involved in building the Apollo command and service modules, and parts of the space shuttles in later years.
“The radio clubs had a booth in front of the building. For the satellite demonstrations, I stood away from the booth with my Kenwood TH-D72, Elk log periodic, and an external speaker plugged into the TH-D72. This was a simple way to demonstrate full-duplex satellite operations, without using a larger radio and battery, and not causing audio feedback when transmitting from the HT. This worked for AO-91 and AO-92 passes around the middle of the day. In addition to the FM satellite demonstrations, the NO-84 satellite passed by for a few packet QSOs using my TH-D74.
“Make no mistake... kids love all things space. Even though the kids liked the HF and VHF/UHF stations at the radio booth, they were more interested in the satellite demonstrations. I had to do a ‘play-by-play’ commentary while working NO-84 but the kids heard the packets coming from NO-84 and I showed them the TH-D74’s display when packets and messages came in.
“In addition to the hams at the radio booth, other hams stopped by to visit. A couple of hams from the Los Angeles area were looking to work me during one of my demonstrations because they were interested in a confirmed QSO with the grid locator for that event (DM03). Those hams parked a short distance away from the event and I worked them both via AO-91. For the NO-84 demonstration, I worked Endaf N6UTC/MW1BQO who was in another part of the event with his TH-D72 and Arrow Yagi, along with three other stations around southern California. My TH-D74 reported Endaf's distance from me as 0.04km (40m, or about 131ft). To cover that short distance, our packets made 800 mile round trips going through NO-84.
“On my way home from California, I took a detour northeast to Las Vegas in Nevada. I made it from Anaheim to the DM25/DM26 grid boundary on the south side of Las Vegas in about three and a half hours and worked FM satellites along with NO-84 from that line. After working those passes and getting some lunch, I still had a drive home of almost five hours. Getting on the satellites from other places is always fun!
“ISS packet has been active for the past few weeks. Once it was found to be working again, it didn’t take long for stations to get back on 145.825MHz, even though NO-84 has been operational recently. Along with those who were regularly on the frequency before the ISS packet system stopped working last December, including the unattended beacons, many new operators have been showing up. One of those was Paul N0BBD in Missouri, in the middle of the continental USA. N0BBD and I made an exchange of APRS messages to complete a QSO on September 8th. A few days later, I received N0BBD’s QSL card. When I sent my QSL card to N0BBD, I included a printout of images of my TH-D74’s display showing our positions and messages, along with an excerpt from the http://ariss.net website showing those packets captured by gateway stations”.
Mark CT1FJC has been active in the early part of September on both FM and SSB transponders. On September 10th, he worked special event call AM1SAT from Spain.
Graham Jones G3VKV (Cheltenham) worked FG8OJ through FO-29 on August 12th and JW/OH8FKS/P on August 22nd.
Here at G4VXE I’ve used the TH-D72 and the MFJ Long Ranger whip to make some APRS contacts through both NO-84 and the ISS. Stations worked were DL7ORE, MM0CMV, DL6AP, M0JFP and M0OSA.
That’s it for this month – a bit of a squeeze to get it all in. Thanks to everyone who has been in touch and please keep all your information coming.
This article was featured in the December 2018 issue of Practical Wireless